How to Lead a Virtual Workforce

August 3, 2016

This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the PRSay blog on June 7.

What does a typical workday look like for you? How much of it do you spend commuting to and from an office?

In 2011, we took a big step toward a virtual office. It was a one-year test to save money as we came out of the Great Recession. We certainly didn’t expect it to become our business model.

At the time, it was a scary step to get rid of our office space. Telecommuting and remote work hadn’t become mainstream, except for those launching their own businesses and creating a digital nomad lifestyle.

Things are looking a little different in the business landscape today.

We know that having the flexibility to telecommute boosts worker success and leads to greater productivity by reducing stress.

According to statistics from a 2014 American Community Survey, telecommuting makes up nearly three percent of the American workforce, which was approximately 3.2 million workers two years ago. What’s more, Fortune 1000 companies are revamping their office space to accommodate for a workforce that’s away from their desk 50-60 percent of the time.

Leading a virtual team has its own special set of benefits and challenges. As a leader, it’s up to you to recognize the challenges and put systems in place to overcome them. Every single challenge can be overcome when the leader sets expectations from the outset. For example, when do you expect your colleagues to be “online” and available? On the flipside, when should they expect you to be available? Are there meetings or conferences you expect them to travel to? What’s your preferred communication style?

Here are some ideas to keep in mind when leading a virtual team:

Benefit: You can hire the right team members, regardless of their time zone. One perk of having a virtual team is the ability to hire anyone you want based on their qualifications and culture fit, versus their proximity to your headquarters.

Challenge: If you have team members around the globe, then there might not be much overlap for real-time communication. This can create a disconnected team that has trouble communicating.

Solution: Create a virtual water cooler for your team. With tools such as Slack, Google Hangouts and Facebook Groups, there are plenty of options to figure out what works for you.

Benefit: Your employees and contractors have the flexibility to get their work done at their optimal productive times — as long as they’re still attending necessary meetings and meeting deadlines.

Challenge: A lot of managers cite trust as a roadblock to building a virtual workforce. The biggest misconception about remote workers is they goof off on company time. If you’ve hired the right people, then you’ll find that just isn’t the case.

Solution: Hire people you know you can trust. You can build in a trial period where you’re checking in with new employees once a week, and hopping in on a meeting to check on their progress. This can be a slippery slope into micromanagement if it’s not handled properly. You want your employees to know you trust them, and set a great precedent for remote work that does allow for laundry in the middle of the day or exercise at lunchtime.

Benefit: It’s all about bringing your own device. Everyone has a personal computer these days, which makes the equipment overhead practically nonexistent for business owners.

Challenge: There’s no longer a central drive on the office network where all of the files can live, plus there can be security issues on personal computers.

Solution: Embrace the Cloud. With Dropbox and Google Drive, you don’t have to worry about a file getting lost because a computer crashed. Our IT pro services all computers and our team is required to install the software we use.

Before managing a virtual workforce, remember to also take stock of your own expectations and limitations as a leader. How you approach your virtual relationship will be an undeniable factor in the success of your team.

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of “Spin Sucks,” co-author of “Marketing in the Round,” and co-host of “Inside PR.” She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.


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